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On Manning, Fracking and Walker’s Chickens
Posted on Jun 9, 2011
Kasia Anderson: We’re hearing a lot about kind of worst-case scenario outcomes here for these foreigners being shipped into Iraq and Afghanistan. But are there any cases that you encountered in which what they signed up for and what they actually got matched up?
Sarah Stillman: Absolutely. I mean, again, this is a huge population of tens of thousands, some people estimate upward of 70,000 workers on these bases. And I think many of them are making far more than they could make in their home countries. So what leads them into a war zone is not necessarily even coercion or trafficking, but rather like a desperate desire to make money they can send back to their families, which they absolutely do. And I even met some people—one man from Ghana who had, he’d initially signed up for a job in Kuwait, and instead was sent into Iraq as a trucker. And when I spoke to him he said he was really, he’d been very terrified to go, but now he was very grateful to be there because he was making a lot more money than he ever could have hoped to make, and he’d built a home for his family. And I’ve met a number of workers who were able to really improve their lives. And that’s part of the real complexity, I think, of the issue; is that even in Fiji, this same company that scammed the Fijian women is now still recruiting. And the company is very—they’ve been part of a big scandal in the Fijian press for all of their deceptive recruiting practices; and yet they still have many, many workers who line up outside their gates every day trying to get a job with them.
Kasia Anderson: Do you have a sense for, now that we’re supposedly withdrawing and trying to wind things down as a presence over there—at least that’s the official line—do you have any sense for how this withdrawal will affect workers like this in American military zones?
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, I think there are kind of two major concerns around that. And one of them has been raised by several colonels in the contracting command in Iraq, who have said a lot of these companies are shedding workers, and sometimes they’re not actually supplying the workers with any way to get home, or any of the things that they thought they were entitled to. So I actually met people on Kandahar Airfield who had basically just been abandoned by the company because the company didn’t need them anymore. They gave them a letter saying thank you for your service. And this one particular man I write about in the piece, Joel Santano, who basically had these massive debts he had to pay, and he had no way to get home to the Philippines. And so I think that’s one concern. And then the other concern is that a lot of rogue entrepreneurs in these home countries have figured out this is a very lucrative market, and why not … they’re still recruiting people to come to Iraq and Afghanistan at the same rate that they were before, and yet oftentimes there are no jobs for them. So they’ll basically just hold them in a warehouse off the base for months at a time with no pay, and often very little food, just kind of awaiting a job in case one appears. Which I think is one of the second, kind of longer-term concerns, is what’s going to happen as these jobs disappear.
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Sarah Stillman: Yeah, I think you have a bit of the Wild West component, because it’s just very, the subcontracting … is very convoluted. And so it’s very, everyone at every stage can kind of wash their hands of accountability. You know, the U.S. government is paying KBR in Texas, and in Texas KBR is paying a Kuwaiti company, and a Kuwaiti company is paying let’s say a local Fijian recruiter. And so it’s very hard to keep tabs on who is doing what, and how you would go about even figuring out what the promises being made to workers on the ground are. And so I think if there were the will to enforce even just more straightforward contracting chains, I think that would go a very, very long way. And also just basic laws about what are these people entitled to. If you talk to contracting officers in Afghanistan and ask them what is the minimum wage here, what are the basic kind of living and working standards these workers are entitled to, it’s quite hard to get a straight answer. And I don’t think there is one.
Josh Scheer: And to be clear, that if they were doing this kind of thing in the U.S. they’d probably be at least arrested or have a heavy fine.
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, absolutely, because we have laws. [Laughs] We have very … not that all workers are able to kind of access those modes of recourse, but they certainly exist. And on these bases, as far as I can tell, they don’t.
Kasia Anderson: It sounds like lack of accountability is built in structurally to these contracting agreements in a way.
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, and that’s also caused major problems for U.S. troops. I think some people in the military are quite upset about it, because they’ve found at various stages it has unforeseen consequences. Like KBR, several years back, there were a number of cases of U.S. soldiers being electrocuted in the showers while I was there in 2008. And they found that in some cases, during congressional testimony, it came out that many of the workers who had been doing the electrical wiring were people, were third-country nationals who had not been necessarily trained in U.S. standards, by no fault of their own, but that’s again another example of kind of the potential consequences of having this very unregulated labor market.
Josh Scheer: Yeah, I mean, it’s sad also with the economy that we have here. You know, there could be good jobs that people might want to do in the Middle East. I would imagine the reason they have to do this is because no one really wants to go there, and these people have to be tricked. Again, this is Sarah Stillman; she’s a writer, she’s written for The Atlantic, she’s written for The New Republic online, Dallas Morning News, of course Truthdig. This is in The New Yorker; it actually came out June 6th, the print issue … again, Sarah, thanks for joining us.
Sarah Stillman: Thanks a lot for having me on the show.
Josh Scheer: OK, have a great day.
Kasia Anderson: That’s all for this week’s Truthdig Radio. On behalf of myself, Kasia Anderson, as well as Josh Scheer and Narda Zacchino, thanks to engineer Stan Misraje; board operator Jee; Alan Minsky, and our guests Alice Walker, Scott Tucker, Tom Kenworthy and Sarah Stillman. We’ll be back next week, when we return triumphant from the Webby Awards in New York City, where we’ll humbly accept the trophy for best political blog for the second year in a row. And as always, check us out on the Web at Truthdig.com.
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